Kind words from a historian

The historian/author Joe Amato emailed me a short response today to my new book, 1940: Journal of a Midwestern Town, Story of an Era. 

Joe had read an earlier draft of the book, but this is his take on the published version:

“This work is a real tour de force. Truly alive to one place during one year.  Many people, classes and cultures, amply and intelligently unified….proving one place is many places, one time joins many lives and times. History here benefits from a journalist.

“Congratulations, Joe”

The book is available!

Hi everyone. I’ve looked forward to this morning for a while now. I am happy to announce that my new book, 1940: Journal of a Midwestern Town, Story of an Era, is now available.

The book can be ordered in a variety of ways. Since my share of the proceeds will be donated to the Friends of the Minneota Public Library, I encourage you to order copies either through my publisher, Ellis Press, or from me. It will also be available on Amazon, but if you order from Ellis Press or me, the contribution to the library is bigger. (Amazon takes a bigger piece of what you pay. But I know Amazon is more convenient for many of you, so if that works better, please use it!)

The book is $21, plus shipping costs. For standard shipping though me, $5; through Ellis Press, $6. Amazon offers various shipping rates.

Here is how you can order:

Ellis Press: at Or send payment ($27) to Ellis Press, Box 6, Granite Falls MN 56241

Through me: Send payment of $26 to Dana Yost, 302 South Street, Apt. 203, Morris MN 56267


Amazon: click here

For Kindle, $4.99, at here.


And, don’t forget: If you want to buy one in person (saving shipping costs, for one thing), please come to the book launch/signing party from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Minneota Public Library. I’ll sign your books, too, and the Friends of the Public Library will provide snacks and coffee.

If you order before the launch, please come to the library anyway and help us celebrate. I can sign your book then, too.


Copies of the book will also be available at some retailers, including some that aren’t traditional book stores. There will be copies at the Minneota Mascot newspaper office. I’m also applying to have it available through the Read Local program in Marshall. Copies would be available at the downtown Marshall Area Fine Arts Center.


One more note for now. There is a companion website for the book, and that is now live. On it, you can find links to a variety of information and other books, videos, photos, documents and more. The site will be updated regularly with new information, photos, etc. The website is




Book launch, signing Saturday, Feb. 4

Two years in the making, my history book about life in the rural Midwest in 1940 is ready to be launched. We’ll have a launch party/book signing from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, February 4, at the Minneota Public Library. library-poster

The book, titled 1940: Journal of a Midwestern Town, Story of an Era, is a history book — researched like a history book, but often written in creative non-fiction style, breathing life into the people and events of the time and place.

Much of it is set in Minneota, Minnesota, where I grew up — although 40 years before I graduated from high school there. So the research and the writing has been more of a discovery for me than retreading old ground, like writing about a totally different town, although some of the names and places are familiar.

It was quite a town, and quite an era. People have asked me, “why 1940?” There are two main reasons. The first is that 1940 was an important transitional year in American and world history — the intersection of the end of the Great Depression and the expansion of World War II. Rural Minnesota was caught squarely in that intersection, so I’ve tried to write about the experiences through the lens of the Minneota and farm residents of the time. At the same time, daily life went on in Minneota — not always easily — but it did go one, fueled by residents’ strength of spirit, ability to laugh and dance, and their incredibly hard work. They were neither isolated by their rural location, nor overwhelmed by world events, but they had both. They had a small community which buoyed them, and yet Minneota of 1940 was much more modernized, more connected to the larger world than I had expected when I began my research. And an incredibly smart town, too, well-educated, well-read. Its high school produced graduates at rates far above national averages, and its population consisted of many more college-educated people than national averages.


Not every day in school was scholarly, though. There were kids who liked to play pranks, such as teasing a Catholic priest, or letting an owl loose in a classroom, and Minneota High School fielded three powerhouse teams in football, basketball and baseball. Its basketball team was so good, in fact, that with each victory, crowds grew bigger and louder, many of them, in the words of one of the players, a bunch of “screaming maniacs.” But not every day in town was light-hearted, either. There were tragedies, there was worry, there was courage and one day in early November there was one hell of a blizzard.

But all this is inside the book.

As everything gets finalized, I’ll post more information about how you can order the book, either online or in person. There will be print and e-book version of 1940, and there will be a supplemental web site with more photos, documents, interview excerpts and links to videos, and other outside material.

I hope to see you February 4!

(My share of the proceeds for all sales of the book will be donated to the Friends of the Minneota Public Library.)


Ten good books from 2016

I try to post a list each year of my ten favorite or best new books I’ve read during the year. I like this year’s mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. 

Full disclosure: Some of these were written by friends or acquaintances of mine. Doesn’t matter, though. Buy them anyway. They’re good.

Royal Hettling, Ten: Five-Five: Boots-on-the-Ground True Stories of a Midwestern Boy and Fellow Handlers Who Served in the Vietnam War. The book is a sometimes grim, sometimes violent, but always eye-opening memoir of Hettling’s military service in Vietnam. With his editor, Dana Miller, Hettling tells an unsparing story with an effective post-modern technique, weaving in first-person voices of a handful of soldiers who served with him. The method creates a multi-layered effect as we hear the same event described from several perspectives. It was a frightening, violent year of service. Hettling and his unit, guard-dog handlers at a fuel and ammo base, fought several small, intense battles and the base they defended was under daily threat of attack by Viet Cong artillery or incursions by Viet Cong guerillas that inevitably led to deadly firefights. We read the story as it unfolds, but also read it through the memories and perspectives of the soldiers more than forty years later – the rare moments they enjoyed, the many that still haunt them.

Anthony Neil Smith’s Holy Death.  The latest  in Smith’s Billy Lafitte series brings the relentless, death-defying Lafitte back to the Gulf Coast. Lafitte is scary-tough as always, but another character in this one really made me shiver.

James Zarzana’s Marsco Triumphant, the second in Zarzana’s Marsco science-fiction series. It does what all good sci-fi should – use its speculative setting and technology to pose compelling questions about life today. Set in a near-future where Earth is a near-wasteland, the technology and some of novel’s more worrisome aspects seem closer every day.

Joseph Amato’s My Three Sicilies. A strong three-section hybrid of poetry, essays and drawn-from-real-life short stories that paint vivid portraits of some of Amato’s ancestors (vivid people, sometimes mystically so), and draws surprising connections between  rural Sicily and the rural Midwest.

Margaret Haase, Between Us. The St. Paul poet’s new collection is a wonderful blend of careful, tender observations of nature, thoughts on aging, subtle wit, social-justice anger, and a sensual understanding of friends, lovers and the earth itself.

David Pichaske, The Pigeons of Buchenau. A short-story collection, mostly set in Germany, among a group of friends who sort through life after the Berlin Wall, and confront death and other loss. The collection also includes a sweet and funny story about Pichaske’s late dog Bear – told by Bear – and a few other stories set in southwest Minnesota.

Joe Wilkins, When We Were Birds. Another moving, soulful poetry collection from the former Waldorf College professor who now teaches and writes in Oregon.

Athena Kildegaard, Ventriloquy. What do you know? Move to a new town, go to a poetry reading and there’s one of Minnesota’s best-known poets – who lives in the same town – reading from her newest book. It consists of four poem sequences, and after reading the first sequence, I don’t think I can ever look at a flower the same way again!

James Shapiro’s  The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. This book came out late in 2015, late enough for me to roll it over into my 2016 reads. There’s a lot of research and history, but what makes it succeed is how well Shapiro draws bold lines from real-life point to in-the-script point, showing how a year of great political turmoil and tension led to, and often turned up in, the three great tragedies Shakespeare wrote in 1606: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. In the months before and while he wrote them, England was rocked by the Gunpowder Plot, and the hunt for and eventual execution of its perpetrators. The assassination of King James was an everyday threat – and sometimes rumored occurrence. Shakespeare’s great tragedies reflect the turmoil, serve some of King James’ political interests, and yet stand, timeless, as great art and devastating contemplation of the uses and abuses of power.

I tend to read books from hither and yon, old and new. These books were not published in 2016 but I read or re-read them this year and would recommend them, too

Thomas McGrath, Death Song (poetry)

Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: the Paris Years (biography)

Philip Dacey, Deathbed Playboy (poetry). Late, great, one of my most important role writing models — and one of his best books.

Anne Lamott – Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (essays, humorous and honest about how to keep your life together when it seems to be falling apart).

Reed Browning, Cy Young: A Baseball Life. The annual award given to Major League Baseball’s best pitchers is called the Cy Young Award. This is a book about the real Cy Young, who won 511 games in the 1890s and 1910s. Farm-boy strong from rural Ohio, Young was no bumpkin – smart in business, shrewder than the big-league owners he pitched for, but highly loyal to his teammates. Plus, he was the best pitcher for the 1903 Boston Pilgrims, who won the very first World Series.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (fiction, stunning portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer and businessman who became invaluable to King Henry VIII.)

Guillermo Joyce, Miller, Bukowski and their Enemies, (essays, literary criticism. A look at two fearless authors, written by another.)



A Vietnam memoir for a cause

If you only watched movies or documentaries about it, it would seem that most of the combat in the Vietnam War occurred in rural areas thick with trees and undergrowth, or rice fields and the small villages near them.

But a new memoir, written by Royal Hettling of Minneota, Minn., with additional

Book cover art and design by Dana Miller

contributions from some of the men he served with, highlights a different Vietnam experience. A different experience in a different combat zone, which, nevertheless, was still often deadly and dangerous — and forever shaped the life, and outlook on life, of Hettling, who was 19 at the time.

The book was released this weekend. Order here:

The book is titled Ten: Five-Five: Boots-on-the-Ground True Stories of a Midwestern Boy and Fellow Handlers Who Served in the Vietnam War. Hettling served in the 483rd Security Police Squadron’s K-9 Unit in 1970-71. It is a fund-raiser for the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota.

Hettling and others in the squadron were patrol dog handlers, much like K-9 police officers today, but more frequently in intense circumstances. They patrolled a fuel and munitions depot at an Air Force Base at Cam Ranh Bay along the southeastern coast of Vietnam. Their job was to work with observation-tower spotters to prevent Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers from penetrating the base and trying to blow up the large fuel tanks and bombs stored there. If the Viet Cong did get in, either by water or through the trees, it was up to the K-9 handlers to find them and stop them: kill or capture them, in other words. Ten: Five-Five was a radio code used by the handlers, which they called in to the command center when their dogs saw or sensed an apparent threat.

It is a well-written and researched book, Hettling’s own experiences backed up by research by the book’s editor, Minneota native Dana Miller, and some of the other soldiers. The research provides more information on specific incidents and overall context on Cam Ranh Bay’s importance as a base, and its proximity to a Vietnamese village — and context of the war during the time Hettling was there.

On several occasions, Hettling and others engaged in combat with the Viet Cong soldiers — small arms firefights usually. One time, he flushed out Viet Cong spies drifting near shore in a sampan by firing rocket-propelled grenades across the boat. He also came under artillery fire as the Viet Cong shelled the base from positions outside its perimeter.

Men die in this book, sometimes they are no more than children — teenaged soldiers amped up on drugs, sent in by Viet Cong at night to try to fix explosive charges to fuel tanks. Men come close to dying in this book, Hettling included.

There is bravery. U.S. soldiers sometimes rushed in on the heels of saboteurs, yanked explosives off the fuel tanks and heaved them away before they could explode. How, I once asked Hettling, could someone do that? What if the explosives had blown up in their hands, killing them? His response: In the heat of combat, you don’t think about what could happen. You think about what you need to do. And do it.

There is camaraderie. Lifelong friendships were formed among the men in the 483rd. book backThere is war-time humor,  homesickness, holiday parties, and close bonds formed between handlers and their dogs. (Hettling worked with a dog named Thunder, each of them trusting his life to the other night after night.)

There is also some coming of age, as Hettling, the Minnesota farm boy, discusses geopolitics with Vietnamese civilians and finds himself wondering about the purpose of the war; along with his reflections on life after battles. And there are moments of remarkable human decency amid all the fighting.

The book is divided into short, easy-to-digest chapters, and supplemented with a strong array of photos — original photos of Hettling and his fellow soldiers at Cam Ranh Bay, photos of the aftermath of battles, and a well-done then-and-now photo section. The book a contains useful, informative glossary, appendixes and documents (including reproducing original paperwork for Hettling’s tour of duty). There are also two sections about the commanding officer at Cam Ranh Bay, a colonel with his own amazing story of World War II heroics.

In short, buy the book because it is a good read and an important addition to our understanding of the Vietnam War. It is also a strong addition to the literary field of southwest Minnesota, a region, of course, rich in writing heritage.

But here’s another reason to buy the book: all proceeds from the sale of the book go toward the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota, operated by Royal Hettling and his brother Charlie. A remarkable museum with interpretive displays, telling multiple perspectives of the war. It had to move into a new building last year and the brothers continue to seek funding to help with the transition.


Farewell, Phil

One of the best, and most important, poets in the country — and an important influence on my own poetry writing — died July 7. Philip Dacey was my friend, my former teacher and, although I came late to writing poetry (or maybe because I came late to it) was someone who helped deepen my appreciation and understanding of  it.

I am not the only one affected by Phil’s writing and guidance, nor by his death. One of the editors of the Stoneboat Literary Journal wrote a wonderful blog upon learning about Phil’s death. I share many of the blog’s sentiments.

Phil was a strong supporter of my writing, in direct and indirect ways.  After close to three decades of writing for newspapers, I wrote my first group of full poems in 2008. They became the book Grace, and lo and behold, on the back cover was a long, complimentary blurb from Phil about the poems and the book. I had not sought it, nor expected it, but it blew me away to see it. I’d taken one poetry class from him years before at SMSU and written a couple stories about him, not enough to really build a relationship. So to see the blurb was really something. After that,  we became closer friends, through e-mails, sharing poems, visiting at writing festivals, through a couple of letters I sent to the Smithsonian magazine questioning their manipulation of photos (especially one of Walt Whitman, which irked both Phil and me).

I was amazed and grateful that he was so generous with his time. He was a serious, big-time poet — friend of the Pulitzer-winner Stephen Dunn, acquaintance of Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McCarthy, Daniel Ellsberg, co-editor of one of the standard college poetry textbooks. Yet, he made time for me, telling me what he’d liked about a poem I had published, accepting my responses to his poems with grace and generosity, as if I were a major editor from a major publishing house. I’d get frustrated, like the writer of the Stoneboat blog, when a submission of mine was turned down. Phil would write to me and say, “don’t worry, I still get rejection letters, too.” I could never believe it: someone of Phil’s talent and stature getting turned down? My first question was often, what kind of dumbbell editor said no to something Phil submitted. But he’d explain more about the process, about how poems have to fit what editors want for a publication and sometimes, even if they’re very good, they don’t fit. So, you move on, submit somewhere else.

Over the last two years, Phil and I continued to write e-mails often, but they became as much about health issues as poetry. When his acute leukemia first struck, he and his partner Alixa went through some nightmarish moments. Some difficult, grueling treatments. My mother has terminal cancer, too, yet she’s been able to respond remarkably well to the various treatments she’s been given — far outliving her original prognosis. Phil would often write, asking for updates on my mother, saying her survival was one of the inspirations for his own battle. Another inspiration, interestingly, was the construction of the new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings football team. When Phil was in the hospital for chemo or blood transfusions, he could often see work progressing on the stadium. It became a metaphor for him. Just as doctors had to tear him down — get rid of all the bad blood cells, all the cancer cells — so they could rebuild him with new blood cells, new bone marrow cells, the same thing was going on outside his hospital window. The old Metrodome was torn down, making way for the new stadium, which was built up and out as he looked on.

He was, he said, going to be like that new stadium. And for a time he was. Remarkably, he prevailed in his first round against the leukemia. He took such good care of himself, running, bicycling, eating well, that doctors said he had the body of a 60-year-old, not a 75-year-old, and it helped him push back the leukemia. He wrote more, he gave more readings, he kept encouraging other poets. He was really happy when his former colleague, Susan McLean, gained national and international acclaim last year for two new books of poetry. Phil had encouraged Susan’s efforts to re-engage in writing poetry, especially formal verse. Susan does it very well now.

Then, of course, the cancer came back. Dammit. And we lost Phil on July 7. I’d gone to visit him just after he had entered hospice care this spring. It was a rainy day near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, and Phil’s voice was hoarse. But he was lively, curious, full of questions and genuine care about my own work and my family. Then we turned to his work, his family. He was surprised and humbled, he said, by the amount of fan mail and e-mails he’d been receiving, notes of encouragement and support from people he knew and many he’d maybe met once or twice or not at all. Well, I said, don’t be surprised: you’re a writer and a teacher. You’ve reached a lot of people, even those you don’t know. And he had. 

He also talked about dying. He was not afraid, but rather wanted to die well, set a good example of dying while still embracing life. That meant pulling the circles of his life closer, not worrying about the distractions or frustrations of the larger world, but living more fully with those closest to him — which meant his family. He loved Alixa, and was very proud of his children, as his poems have often revealed. He felt comfortable dying, knowing they had all grown into successful, confident people who wouldn’t go through their lives needing his help. He wasn’t worried, he said, that he’d get a 2 a.m. phone call from jail, asking to bail one of them out. No, no worries about that at all, which made it easier to let go.

In our conversation, as he talked about his sons and daughter he cupped two of his fingers together, bouncing them in the air to match his words as he counted their latest achievements and moves to new places. In a way, the gesture looked as if he was giving a blessing or benediction to his children’s lives.

As I left that day, he gave me four books — and would have given me more — insisting I pull some from his bookshelves. He found a grocery bag for me to carry them in, protecting them from the rain. I thought about what he had said about his children. Maybe it applies to the rest of us who knew him, too. We don’t have to call him at 2 a.m., nor do we have to e-mail him with a question or about his latest published poem. But what if we wanted to? It’s been a week and a half now, and I’ve gotten no new e-mails from Phil, nor sent any to him. Yesterday, I read something about the late poet John Berryman, who had taught at the University of Minnesota years ago. It was something I normally might have shared with Phil. Instead, I circled the paragraphs in the magazine I was reading, set down my pen, and placed the magazine back in the rack next to my chair. The cover closed, the story somewhere inside. I suppose I’ll leave it that way